“I think I’m on my way,” wrote 27-year-old Kurt Vonnegut to his father in 1950, after one of his stories was finally accepted for publication. Not until 1969, however, did he land on the bestseller list, with the antiwar novel Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut’s letters from this intervening period reveal a deeply troubled soul who nevertheless found the strength to face the daily terror of the blank page armed only with a spacey imagination. His fans will appreciate the window this selection of seven decades’ worth of correspondence opens into an overcast life that late-blooming wealth and fame failed to brighten.
Edited by novelist and former FIU professor Dan Wakefield, these letters appear in the wake of Charles J. Shields’ well-received biography, And So It Goes. Despite his admiration, Shields dutifully exposed his subject’s many flaws: poor husband, distant father, ungrateful friend, political hypocrite, self-mythologizing poseur. Wakefield acknowledges Shields’ work, but his approach is considerably less provocative.
The letters are sorted into decades, each introduced by a short essay that tones down or omits Vonnegut’s untoward actions. Like Vonnegut, Wakefield is a Hoosier, born and raised in Indianapolis. In the 1960s, the great man took Wakefield under his wing, even going so far as to help edit his first novel. The Vonnegut estate chose him because it rightly felt he would highlight his mentor’s positive attributes: the antic humor and homespun wisdom that entertained millions of readers.
We begin in 1945, with Vonnegut describing his POW experiences to his family. Worst of all, of course, was witnessing the firebombing of Dresden, an apocalypse it would take him almost a quarter century to transmute into fiction. This is followed by his uncle’s account of Vonnegut’s strange behavior after returning home, behavior that would be recognized today as PTSD. Vonnegut never fully recovered. Fortunately, he had a creative outlet. But every young fool with romantic notions of war should be force-fed these letters.
Twenty years later, Vonnegut had no wish to see his son Mark go through the same thing. In a letter to a draft board, he eloquently endorsed Mark’s application for conscientious objector status. Vietnam is otherwise barely mentioned. Vonnegut seemed to refrain from cluttering his mind with quotidian politics (JFK’s assassination is downgraded to “yesterday’s demonstration in Dallas”).
But he didn’t hesitate to raise his voice against censorship. His letter to the chairman of a school board in North Dakota that burned one of his books is a powerful defense of free speech. Long before the red state/blue state scheme, he understood our cultural polarization: “The censorship stories are all so regional. The Mason-Dixon line still matters a lot. In small towns in Dixie, the general population is almost always solidly behind the censors and, of course, the football team.”
He was at a loss, however, with the opposite sex. “I can never get women into my stories,” he admits. True, his heroines are pretty two-dimensional. He was a Mad Men-era chauvinist who, shortly after marrying his first wife, drafted a contract detailing exactly what chores he would or wouldn’t do around the house. Later, after he became, as he put it, “something of a public man,” he threw her over for a noted photographer. His letters to his daughter Edie, in which he tries to salvage their relationship by explaining the situation, are mature and memorable. He cautions Edie to take everything he says with a grain of salt: “Most letters from a parent contain a parent’s lost dreams disguised as good advice.”
He got his comeuppance when the second marriage descended into unhappiness. Vonnegut’s twilight years were not peaceful. He’d always suffered from depression; in 1953, fearing he was having a breakdown, he asked his agent for the name of a therapist. But now he was downright suicidal. He could have been talking about himself when he wrote his friend, the Chilean novelist Jose Donoso: “I have met a lot of writers by now, and they all carry twenty acres of Sahara Desert with them wherever they go.”
But in the end, the work is what will be remembered. Cat’s Cradle, Mother Night, The Sirens of Titan, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five” — all excellent and enduring. Too bad they aren’t discussed much here. Vonnegut was tight-lipped about his method of composition. He was also thin-skinned and insecure. An ill-conceived letter to a critic oozes with self-pity. One wishes he had chosen to rest on a bed of well-earned laurels instead of rose thorns.
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.